Thursday, April 14, 2016

Wisconsin Federal Court Allows Teacher's ADA and Retaliation Claims to Proceed to Trial

The plaintiff, Jamie Cole ("Cole") began working for the defendant Kenosha Unified School District Board of Education ("the District") in 2006 teaching special education at a high school in that district.  Since beginning her work with the District, Cole had worked at various other schools in the District.  Cole has Type 1 diabetes, which she has been controlling since 2003, and major depression, which was diagnosed in 2010.

Over the course of a few school years, Cole submitted numerous requests for accommodation for her disabilities, which were the focus of contested material facts in the motion for summary judgment filed by the District (the opinion goes into great detail about these requests).  Given the definite uncertainty as to when the District's duty to accommodate began, whether the District actually reasonably accommodate Cole, who was to blame for the multiple breakdown in communications between the parties, and whether Cole was retaliated against for her accommodation requests and EEOC complaint, the Court is allowing this case to proceed to trial.

Employer's Duty to Accommodate

To show a failure to accommodate, a plaintiff must establish that: 1) the plaintiff is a qualified individual with a disability; 2) the employer was aware of the disability; and 3) the employer failed to reasonably accommodate the plaintiff's disability.  Furthermore, employees must make their employers aware of any nonobvious, medically necessary accommodations with corroborating evidence such as a doctor's note or at least orally relaying a statement from a doctor, before an employer may be required under the ADA's reasonableness standard to provide a specific modest accommodation the employee requests.

After an employee has disclosed that she has a disability, the ADA requires an employer to "engage with the employee in an 'interactive process' to determine the appropriate accommodation under the circumstances."  An employee need only show that an accommodation seems reasonable on its dace, i.e., ordinarily or in the run of cases.  Once an employee has made this showing, the employer must then demonstrate undue hardship.

Disputed Facts

The Eastern District of Wisconsin found that there remained a significant number of disputed facts.  The District did not dispute the first and second elements of Cole's failure to accommodate claim (1. that she is a qualified individual with a disability, and 2. that they were aware of her disability).  However, based on the documents submitted into the record, there are present some dispute as to when the District's duty to accommodate Cole's disabilities attached.  Given it is the employee's duty to inform the employer of "nonobvious, medically necessary accommodations," it is disputed when Cole did this given she suffers from two disabilities. 

The court further noted that, "the third element of Cole's reasonable accommodation claim-whether the District failed to reasonably accommodate her disabilities-is undoubtedly in dispute."  The District did not argue that Cole's transfer request out of special education was not "unreasonable," but they do argue that the accommodations they did provide enabled Cole to perform the essential functions of her job, and that it had no duty to reassign Cole to a different position because either there was no position available for the transfer, she was not qualified for the positions that were available, or she rejected the opportunities to transfer, when offered.

The Court also only very briefly addressed Cole's retaliation claim finding that, "both the manner in which Cole was allegedly encouraged to withdraw her EEOC complaint and the various emails exchanged between District employees indeed suggest that Cole's requests may not have been handled promptly due to her 'history' with the District."  Given this, the Court held that Cole's retaliation claim could not fairly be disposed of before trial.

The case is Cole v. Kenosha Unified School District Board of Education, E.D. Wis., April 11, 2016, J.P. Stadtmueller)

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